WELL INTO TOTS IN TINSELTOWN the pariah-to-parvenu actors and actresses--the tots in Hollywood--sit around a barren movie set, pink slips in their hands, pondering their impending return to poverty. Kitty Kaboodle, dancing wonder, naif from Moot Point, Montana, says she'll go home, give up the glamour. But Henna Hoofer, jaded and street-smart, tries to change Kitty's mind; she tells her she's got to keep on, then looks up into the lights in a mood of inspiration invoking the dream of the silver screen: "Everywhere," she says, "there are girls... and a few strange boys... who want to grow up to be starlets." If there is an essence to the Hasty Pudding Theatricals' meandering 128th show, I guess this is it. The immediate humor panders to a stereotype; it relies on the underlying irony to carry it through. And the underlying irony--the fact that Henna, Kitty and all the other women characters in the play are men--not only describes one kind of laugh offered in Tots but goes a long way toward explaining the musical comedy's existence to begin with. It seems that even some grown men--strange or not--feel the urge to dress in drag, high kick in hairy-legged chorus lines, and take part in explicit sexism and suppressed homoeroticism.
Homoeroticism or chaste homosexuality is probably too big a word to describe the simple, superficial amusement that comprises Tots in Tinseltown. The title itself, whose significance plumbs the depths of the mouth but no further--being a simple anagram, a single-letter reversal that tries to provoke sexist tonsils into laughter--is tongue-in-cheek only because the tongue, if the image is complete, has no place else to go. But there's a connection between the two, homoeroticism and sexism, a connection that explains the traditions of the HPT. It goes back to an all-male Harvard, when men were cloistered and taught to enter into occupations and positions of power from which women were largely excluded.
There are other traditions in HPT shows too, aside from the singing, music, and dancing--incessant one-liners, salacious humor, satires of manners, silly word-play meant to elicit groans and hisses from the audience--traditions that tend to balance off the offensive stuff. And because director Judith Haskell has worked with writer Mark O'Donnell to excise some of the more offensive sexist jokes, because bits and pieces of the inoffensive material work quite well, and mostly because the music is excellent and some of the dancing is neatly executed, I suppose you should consider going to see Tots in Tinseltown.
One of the curious things about HPT 128 is that plot seems to suffer from the toned-down atmosphere, almost as if the sexism is an integral part of the show, and men just running around in drag and telling silly jokes isn't enough. I've never been to a Pudding show before so I can't tell, but I hear plot has usually been weak; this year it's about as thin as a slide-specimen. Innocent Kitty Kaboodle comes to New York during the Depression with hopes of instant stardom, or at least she says she's marked it on her calendar. Kitty falls in with other down-and-outers in a chorus-line--including Flo Gently, the first lady of the American stage ("The very first"), and Henna Hoofer, whose name is mispronounced more out of a sense of accuracy than anything else--and she meets songwriter Buddy System and falls in love. But Preston Folded, a Hollywood producer scouting for talent, wants to "make free" with Kitty, and in exchange for his taking her and all her friends to Hollywood, she consents. Hollywood presents few twists in the plot: Buddy is still chasing Kitty (Buddy: I'm holding my own. Reply: that's one way to handle it.) Kitty stays up nights drinking root beer, and Preston Folded isn't "getting any" ("Revoking your licentiousness, eh Kitty?"). Preston threatens to send the tots back home but, as luck and dramatic experience would have it, there is a recognition scene: Preston (really Hiram Higaby) finally sees through Flo Gently's pseudonym; she's really Dolores Fishback, Preston's old college sweetheart. Flo saves the other tots from returning to the bread lines, the show ends in a few marriages, and Kitty sings "Let's Stay Home" for the honeymoon, saying that "All of the best things are right here at home, and besides, there aren't any little foreign people fingering you up."
WHAT HOLDS TOTS IN TINSELTOWN together--it sprawls over 12 scenes in two acts--is this sense of showmanship: all of the actors and actresses want to make it big in entertainment. Where the plot doesn't hold up, the Hollywood fantasies or the fact that everybody thinks of themselves as entertainers carry things through. The idea that this is show biz makes some of the songs and dances a little less adventitious than they normally are in musicals. The chorus-line number, for instance, which has to be stuck in every year, is introduced by Preston, who says, "C' mon people, let's make movies!" And it isn't just a kick-line; the choreography is sophisticated enough to include a parody of the Busby-Berkeley extravaganza: the dancers break apart and whirl around in circles, then make several lines and wave their arms in the air like grass in the wind while the cymbals rise and fall like waves.
The dancing throughout Tots is actually pretty impressive, considering that part of the fun of HPT shows is supposed to be that everybody trips over clodhopper-style numbers. There's still too much bumbling, but Greg Minahan as Kitty shows that fast feet can add to the show. He dances up a good watch-me-and-then-you-can-do-it number with Mark Szpak (Henna), and together with Buddy (Bruce Cranston) they dance a nice soft shoe in a satirical love song, called "Easy to Please." Even the bumbling has been made into more interesting dance with Judith Haskell, who doubled as choreographer this year. Robert Peabody as Flo Gently, who incidentally comes off with the best all-around performance, does this difficult drunken-dance routine in "High Steppin' Lady," and later, with Preston Folded (Mark Kiely), they dance up a quiet little storm in the "Cold Turkey Trot" (one of the funniest numbers in the show).
MARK O'DONNELL'S lyrics are generally good--most songs have one or two saving lines, and the only offensive line I can remember comes in "Feel Free to take Liberties," when Preston Folded invites Third World refugees to come to the United States because "I can't refuse your refuse." Some of the best lyrics come in "Chic," a kind of exotic number where the newly ascendant black-tied and backless-dressed tots enter from both sides a stride at a time, holding champagne glasses and long cigarette holders, singing, "We are part of such an elite clique, we change our underwear every day of the week." One of the real problems with the lyrics though, is that you can't hear them. Only Robert Peabody can project his voice, which helps make for a bit of the ironic humor when he descends several octaves in "The Cold Turkey Trot."
Since characterization in Tots is something less than two-dimensional, only the one-liners distinguish one member of the cast from another. Flo has the best, and the thief in a flat sub-plot, Jerry Mander (Tim Feran) has a lot of the really bad puns and low humor (in response to Henna's rejecting him because he's stupid, he says "I'll be partially sage, Rosemary...in time").
What seems to bring Tots in Tinseltown slightly above the horizon of mediocrity isn't really a coherent whole: the art-deco sets by Frank Colavecchia, especially the backdrop for Preston Folded's Hollywood home; a few of the costumes by Barry Odom--one eye-catcher was Henna Hoofer's feathery outfit for the imaginary movie number, "Pigeons of My Heart"; and Ronald Melrose's music, which goes so far as to include an anomaly of sorts in Tots, a serious lost-love song called "Minus Me." All this floats around in a melange of parody and self-parody that tries to raise Tots above--and simultaneously recognizes that it can't--collegiate claustrophobia.
It's interesting though, that after 128 years, it took a woman director-choreographer to make the Hasty Pudding Theatricals worth considering as a serious production, at least partially. It seems that somebody is responding to a line of Preston Folded's: "If you can't stand the bad taste, get out of the Kitsch."